An Interview with Mitchell L. H. Douglas
If you live in Indianapolis, or in Indiana for that matter, you should be made aware of how fortunate we are to have the accomplished poet and professor, Mitchell L. H. Douglas, among us. Read on to find out more about his forthcoming third book of poetry, the importance of music and art in his work, his thoughts on racism in the Heartland, and much more. After reading the interview , click on “Next Page” in order to read forthcoming poems from his new book!
NS : Your third book, which is set to drop via Persea Books on February 13, 2018, is titled dying in the scarecrow’s arms: poems. There are so many exciting and intriguing things about this book that I hope you can elaborate on, such as the description I found of it, which depicts the book as addressing “the assault on people of color in American’s increasingly divided Heartland.” You were born and raised in the Midwest, and currently live in Indianapolis; how much is this book based on your own life and the volatility you observe around you? Was this subject matter something you feel you chose to write about, or did it choose you? What was the process of writing and shaping this book like for you?
MLHD: It took me a long to time to realize it, but I owe the Midwest a great debt in honing my poet’s voice. I started writing poems at 13 in Iowa City, I earned an MFA from IU Bloomington, and I’ve lived in Indianapolis since 2006. The Heartland is my physical and spiritual home.
Living in Indianapolis, it’s hard to ignore the tides of violence the city has suffered, the way we resolve disputes with the finality of bullets. Add to that our increased awareness of disregard for people of color in police shootings of the unarmed; a white supremacist apologist/reality show president; and a segment of the population that thinks denouncing racism makes you racist. These are trying times. I was working on an entirely different book, and the voices of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner spoke to me. I had no choice but to put the other poems down and devote my time to this new project.
When more and more stories of police shootings broke, I dug into the details, thought about my own interactions with police, and started writing poems. They were so different than the poems in the manuscript that was supposed to be my main project, but I knew I had to write them. Eventually, I noticed that I had enough of these new poems to create a manuscript I never planned to write. This was an exciting proposition: a manuscript that grew and assembled itself very organically. It was determined to exist even if I never intended it to be.
NS: Your first book addresses the life of soul singer Donny Hathaway through persona poems, while you’ve said your second book is more autobiographical and explores your Southern roots and deep pain at the loss of your grandmother: your family’s matriarch. However, both books use music and innovative forms (such as your invention of the “fret” form). Will we see use of music and/or any particular or peculiar forms in this third book? How much of this third book would you say is autobiographical?
MLHD: To some degree, this book employs the use of alternate takes found in my previous books. The form I invented for \blak\ \al-fə bet\, the fret, will return in a future project (the one I was working on when scarecrow grabbed my attention.)
There is a lot of me in this book in terms of my pain in reaction to very high profile deaths on the national and local level, but I wanted to make this book more than my personal experience. You’ll have to decide if what you hear is one voice or many, but as a poet, I always reserve the right to explore persona. That’s my reach for a higher truth.
NS: The title of your third book is a line from a fascinating Robert Hayden poem entitled “A Road in Kentucky,” which features a mysterious woman. Can you elaborate on how you came to this title and what this poem means to you? Also, your cover art is super cool, and comes from the artist Derrick Adams. Can you elaborate on how visual art such as Adam’s impacts you, and if this particular art has affected your writing?
MLHD: My friend, the Kentucky poet Maurice Manning, unknowingly gave me the title for the book in the summer of 2016. In the summers, I teach poetry with the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts: an intensive three-week program for gifted high school students based at Centre College in Danville. Maurice was born in Danville and has a farm just outside the city. Visiting his farm has become an annual pilgrimage for our creative writing students. When he read “A Road in Kentucky” to our students—a poem that places the mysterious woman you reference in an uncertain existence outside Kentucky—I related to the poem immediately. I had recently come to peace with the fact that although I had previously identified my Southern roots as central to my art—Kentucky, Alabama, and Affrilachia to be exact—Indiana was feeling more and more like home. The line “dying in the scarecrow’s arms” rang in my ears as a metaphor for dying in the Midwest, a subject that had been moving my poetry for months. That day, the book lost its original title (it’s awkward and I’ll save myself embarrassment by not mentioning it). It was as if dying in the scarecrow’s arms was the only title it ever had.
I am a failed visual artist. Well, let me rephrase that—I stopped pursuing visual art to concentrate on poetry. The inspiration is still there. My father is a painter, my uncle is a painter (he did the cover for \blak\ \al-fə bet\), so I was raised with a natural appreciation for art. Before I ever published my first book, my plan was to always have striking cover art. The cover for the new book speaks to the feeling of fear and conflict that the poems address.
NS: I know that you teach full time as an Associate Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), you are a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a Cave Canem fellow and Poetry Editor for PLUCK!: The Journal of Affriliachian Arts & Culture. In addition to all of this, you are a parent, all while attending to your own writing. I was very interested to see that you were on a panel at AWP about parenting and writing. How do you juggle it all? How do children affect writing? Any tidbits you want to share from the AWP panel?
MLHD: If you’re an artist and parent, the best thing you can do is find other artist parents. Some of my closest friends are raising smart kids and making good art. That inspires me and shows me it’s possible. We share our stories and lift each other up. I am a product of several supportive artistic communities and each encourages me in different ways. I don’t take the blessing for granted.
One quirk that’s served me well is that I am a night owl, so writing at night when the house is quiet and my wife and daughter are sleeping makes perfect sense.
NS: How long have you lived in Indianapolis? What are some things you like about Indy? Favorite literary / music / arts / entertainment spots in Indy (or surrounding areas)?
MLHD: I’ve lived in Indy since 2006. Like my hometown Louisville, Indy cares about the arts. I felt that right away and knew I was in the right place. My introduction to Indy was being invited to participate in a tribute to Etheridge Knight at the Chatter Box. How could I say no? I love the IMA and the Children’s Museum, Fountain Square and Mass Ave., crate digging at Indy CD & Vinyl and LUNA in Broad Ripple. Pacers games, literary readings at IUPUI, Butler, and Indy Reads, hanging out at the main library downtown with my daughter, the Indiana Writers Center’s Gathering of Writers, comic book stores, Half Price Books. I have my regular haunts that I’ve grown incredibly attached to. It’s hard to let go.
Mitchell L. H. Douglas is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. His debut collection, Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem (Red Hen Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2010 NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Literary Work-Poetry category and a 2010 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His second poetry collection \blak\ \al-fə bet\, winner of the 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award, was published in February 2013 by Persea Books. His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter and the anthologies The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South and Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky among others. He is a Cave Canem graduate and cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets. His third collection of poems, dying in the scarecrow’s arms, is forthcoming from Persea Books in spring 2018.